The Good Thing About Being Sick in Haiti
I got sick here. It started with a very sore and burning throat, which I attributed to the heat and dust (remember the first newsletter?) but then it turned into what I thought was a sinus infection. I stayed in bed for an entire day, sweating, not from fever but from the heat, and not managing to feel better at all. I had a meeting in Port-au-Prince the next day and had decided that, no matter how bad I felt, I would go since there is a health centre for Red Cross delegates at base camp. Now, going to Port-au-Prince is no easy feat. The bad roads, our curfew and horrendous traffic in the capital mean that we leave Petit Goâve at 5 a.m. and, in turn, have to leave Port-au-Prince at 15.00 to be home by 18.00. But, all this I was ready to endure for the promise of a health centre at the other end (and, of course, my meeting).
And I was so right! The health centre is staffed by a rotation of doctors including three Haitians and one expat. But, the BEST THING OF ALL at the base camp health centre is Virpi, a Finnish nurse whom I met on my first stay at base camp when she briefed new delegates on health issues. Virpi is an experienced medical delegate who is on her second tour in Haiti. She is young, energetic and very “motherly”, which is exactly what I needed.
Virpi took total control, putting me in a private “cell” of the medical centre on a comfortable cot with a mosquito dome and, the best thing of all, air conditioning! I felt like I was near death but Virpi, in her experience and wisdom, knew not only that I simply had a bad cold but also knew just the prescription that was needed: a big dose of TLC. So, while I lay on the bed with cool air flowing around me, I drifted in and out of a much needed rest (remember, we left at 5 a.m.), safe in the knowledge that Virpi would be there if I needed her. I did see the visiting doctor who, in true French tradition, prescribed a long list of stuff, half of which Virpi, again in her wisdom, told me to ignore and I did. So I came home from Port-au-Prince with an antihistamine, antibiotics (if things get worse) and some vitamin C. But most of all, I came back with a renewed sense of humanity and gratitude for the Finns.
Time in Haiti
It doesn’t take much time before one learns about “Haitian time”, and then it takes a lot of time. To understand Haitian time, simply take a time, any time, and add a lot more time to it. This is Haitian time.
Yesterday at work, a going away lunch for a colleague started at 17.30. You will remember my meetings with the hospital director that were set to start at 10.00 even though he was a 2-hour drive away from the appointed meeting place. And a 9.30 breakfast celebration for volunteers still hadn’t received its pre-ordered food at 12.00.
The strange thing about Haitian time is that no one seems to mind (except us foreigners) and things get done in the end without much stress (except for us foreigners). Efficiency is not a goal here; rather it is a concept whose Haitian time has still not come.
Money in Haiti
Before coming to Haiti, we were told that we could pay for many things using American dollars, even though the Haitian currency is the “Gourde”. During one of my first shopping forays here in Petit Goâve, I asked the price of a small stovetop espresso maker and was shocked when the stopkeeper told me it cost “trois cent dollars” (300 dollars). Even in Norway, where such things are heavily taxed, a stovetop espresso maker would cost the equivalent of about 50 dollars, so you can imagine my shock at hearing the price in Petit Goâve. I told the shopkeeper that it was “trop cher” and she seemed surprised. I left the shop, cataloguing the experience in my “I’m no dumb foreigner” file. It was several days later that I found out about the “Haitian dollar”.
The Gourde (HTG) replaced the French “livre” as the currency for Haiti in 1813. In 1912 it was pegged to the US dollar at a value of 5 gourdes to one dollar and this concept became knows as the “Haitian dollar”. It is used to this day to express the value of items in monetary terms, even though no such currency has ever existed. Things have changed since 1912 and there are now 40 gourdes to the US dollar. However, the Haitian dollar today is still valued at 5 gourdes. So, when the shopkeeper told me that the coffee maker cost 300 dollars, it meant that I should have taken the Haitian dollar price, multiplied by 5 to get the price in Gourdes and then divided by 40 to get the price in USD. I can’t bring myself to go back to the shop and buy the USD 37 coffee maker since I am sure the shopkeeper has a file of “dumb foreigners” in which I now figure prominently.
My Work (continued?)
Well, this week was a “challenging” one that has left me less than cautiously Haiti about the hospital exit (Alice, you may now say “I told you so”). Despite my best intentions and 3 facilitation meetings this week alone, there is still no strategy from the hospital authorities. It is not clear whether this is due to lack of capacity, willingness or understanding, but it seems as if the participatory approach may not produce any fruits for my labours. There is one last chance over the next few days for Our Lady of Petit Goâve to perform a miracle…I hope she doesn’t work on Haitian time…
While in Port-au-Prince, I had lunch at the Minustah Deck Bar and Grill. For those of you who haven’t lived in the world of strange acronyms, Minustah is the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti or, since the acronym is really for the French name, Mission des Nations Unies pour la stabilisation en Haïti. Set up in 2004 by UN resolution, Minustah is the UN Peacekeeping mission here. According to Wikipedia, “Minustah comprises 8,940 military personnel and 3,711 police, supported by an international civilian personnel, a local civilian staff and United Nations Volunteers”. According to me, Minustah comprises a bunch of people with a darn good place to eat. Most of you know that I tend to see the world through food and my experience at the Minustah compound was no exception. Walking into the Deck Bar and Grill is like walking into any noisy bar and grill in Florida except that, instead of air conditioning, it has wall fans that produce a thin spray of water to keep customers cool and instead of uniformed wait staff, it is full of uniformed customers. The noise level is like everywhere else in Haiti…VERY LOUD and I wondered how we were possibly going to have a meeting here, since this was what had been planned. A quick look at the menu immediately took my mind off the meeting as my stomach began to react to the list of salads (Cobb, Chef, Spinach, Pasta) and hot meals (Spicy Chicken Wings, Beef and Broccoli with Almonds, Lasagna, Hamburgers, Tuna Melts).
As people walked by our table coming from the “pick-up” window, I could see that the food looked good…really good. Since I was still feeling slightly sick and my throat was sore (despite the TLC from Virpi), I decided not to order the spicy chicken wings and fries and, instead, ordered the beef and broccoli with steamed rice. The meat was tender, the broccoli was appropriately crunchy and the rice separated perfectly. My stomach and I were very happy and I’m considering enlisting… The meeting went pretty well too.
The Madame and the Mouse
By now I suppose many of you know that the results of the first round of elections in Haiti (from November 2010) have been announced and the candidates who will be in the second round of voting will be Madame Manigat and “Sweet Micky” Martelly. The decision was finally made by the CEP (Conseil Electoral Provisoire), a temporary committee set up to pronounce on disputed elections. The CEP announced that they would announce the winners on 2 February and the announcement came right on time (Haitian time, that is) on 3 February. The elections are to take place on 20 March 2011…(is that Haitian time or…?)
Signs of Faith
There is a saying that Haiti is 90% Catholic and 100% Voodoo. The Voodoo part seems to be well hidden but evidence of the Catholic part is everywhere. The following pictures were taken on my last trip to Port-au-Prince.
On this drive to Port-au-Prince, I was unable to snap photos of the “Adonai Bakery” and the “Sons of Israel Car Repair”…I’ll save that for next time.
Leaving on a Jet Plane
This time next week I will be heading home for a 2-week break. When Hans Einar asked me if I wanted to do anything special, I told him “I want to be cold and to take hot showers”. My idea of luxury has changed considerably since I’ve been in Haiti.
Originally, my work was supposed to continue for another 6 weeks back in Haiti. When and for how long I return will depend a lot on what happens in the next week. As for me, my signs of faith are in the faces of many of the young Haitians I have met along the way…stay tuned.
Postscript: I did not return to Haiti for this assignment as the work had finished. I did return in 2012 to carry out an evaluation and found that things in Petit Goâve had not changed much. Stay tuned…still.